The Free and Fair Election Foundation provides monitors in Afghanistan
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website
The complaints emerging about fraud in the Afghan presidential and provincial elections have thrust the role of international election monitors into the spotlight.
What do they do? How do they go about doing it? Can they be trusted?
Election monitoring has become a big undertaking in the past couple of decades. It developed rapidly after the fall of the Soviet Union and the spread of democratic institutions in the former communist republics.
Coupled with democratic development elsewhere, especially in Latin America and Africa, a situation rapidly emerged in which a respectable election could not really be held without international monitoring.
Four main groups
There are four main international monitoring bodies. They are the European Union, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Carter Center set up by former US President Jimmy Carter, and an American group called the National Democratic Institute (NDI). (Update: I have been asked to mention another group, the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), which is also monitoring the Afghan elections. This is the only regional observation group in Afghanistan.)
The United Nations does not itself monitor elections any more, but it does provide advice and expertise to governments that ask for it.
In addition, there are local monitoring groups, which are often far larger.
In the case of Afghanistan, the local group is the Free and Fair Election Foundation and it picked up on complaints first.
The main international monitors have come from the EU and the NDI. The NDI is funded by the US government and has links to the US Democratic Party. The UN has given expert advice to the Afghan government.
The EU mission has attracted some questions after it headlined its preliminary report two days after the election: "Afghan elections take place in a reasonably well-organised manner amid widespread violence and intimidation."
This was regarded by some as an endorsement of the election process well in advance of any assessment by the Afghan election commission itself.
However, the detailed EU mission statement was actually more nuanced and held back from reaching any conclusion.
The mission head, retired French General Phillipe Morillon, made it clear that a conclusion would have to wait and he acknowledged that "there are a lot complaints" about voting fraud.
The NDI also held off from reaching any conclusion at this stage.
Dr David Carroll, director of the democracy programme at the Carter Center, explained how his missions work. The Center has observed more than 70 elections in 30 countries over the past 15 years.
The Carter Center has observed more than 70 elections in 30 countries
"Two or three times a year we look ahead and choose our priorities, especially among countries facing transition toward democracy.
"We only go if invited and then we set up a team months in advance. We have already been in Sudan for a year and elections there are not due for another six months.
"We co-ordinate with the other monitoring agencies and check on key issues such as electoral law, media access, the voting process and the counting.
"By election day we will have extra monitors on the ground and will watch at polling stations and we always try to get access to the counting procedure. Ideally we want to be able to take sample statistics from various areas.
"A report is issued in due course giving our findings and making recommendations."
I asked him about the role of the domestic monitoring groups. "We need to reassure ourselves that they are independent," he said. "Sometimes, these groups are seen as having a preference for one side. And we work on a case by case basis.
"Overall, monitoring is important in helping to ensure that there is a credible and impartial check."
The OSCE operates in a similar way. Thomas Rymer, spokesman for the OSCE election team which is based in Warsaw, said: "We have core, expert staff who are sent in a month or two early to monitor different aspects of the election such as the law, registration and gender participation.
The OSCE likes to monitor the elections of all its 56 member states
"Well before election day we send in several hundred observers, mainly drawn from the civil services of our member states. We have check lists and we work our way down them.
"The principle is to ensure that the election is being held in accordance with the commitments that the government holding the election will have given us."
The OSCE likes to monitor all its 56 member states. It has looked at the US and the UK and is currently preparing for a mission to Germany.
However, in 2008 it pulled out of the Russian presidential election because it said that Russia was imposing too many restrictions.
There have been comments that these bodies tend to turn a blind eye to fraud in some Western countries and to give new and Western-friendly governments an easier time.
In 2006, British historian Mark Almond complained that protests about fraud in Mexico were discounted by the EU mission, which called the election "fair".
The EU mission was led, Almond pointed out, by a Spanish member of the European Parliament whose party was an ally of the winning candidate's own party.
Almond said: "It doesn't matter who votes, it matters who observes the votes."
Dr Carroll of the Carter Center said: "The criteria we use to judge countries are the same. But the expectation of those countries meeting them can be different. We understand that it can be hard for a country coming out of a 20- or 30-year civil war but we look at the same core issues."
And there is a huge gap in that elections in countries which reject Western monitoring, such as Iran, cannot be checked.
Claims of electoral fraud in Iran were impossible to verify without monitors
The absence of international monitors in Iran left the media and outside governments scrambling to understand what had happened.
The claims of the losing candidates that there had been fraud were impossible to verify and were taken seriously only because of the widespread protests (which indicated internal unrest at the results) and an analysis that statistically President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had done almost impossibly well.
But unrest and statistical analysis are not substitutes for on-the-spot inspection and monitoring.